You’ve probably heard that Georgia Tech has a number of Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRIs) – but do you know much about them?
This article is one in a series of Q&As to introduce the Tech community to the nine IRIs and their leaders. In this installment, Executive Director of the Institute for People and Technology (IPaT) Beth Mynatt answers questions about IPaT and also talks about its primary areas of research.
Q: What is the Institute for People and Technology (IPaT), and what are its core research areas?
A: Focusing on sectors such as health care delivery, education, humanitarian systems, and consumer media, IPaT looks at the potential Georgia Tech’s cutting-edge research has to transform human behavior in areas of great societal interest.
We look at where technology and people come together in powerful ways. For example, we explore novel media technologies that will help motivate healthy behavior and help people manage chronic diseases. We look at new communication technologies to help communities find ways to take care of each other. We examine creative technological approaches for fostering lifelong learning in all its forms. And we invent ways to simulate and model these complex societal systems to help stakeholders understand future possibilities.
Q: What makes IPaT’s approach to addressing complex societal challenges different?
A: We build strong partnerships across academic and applied research with government agencies and industry leaders to understand complex societal challenges and to accelerate implementations of technological solutions.
To facilitate this multidisciplinary approach, we create living laboratories where our researchers, partners, potential users, and consumers can all come together to co-create the future. Because these labs are where the transdisciplinary teams, our partners, and the technology converge, they are a big part of our work. If we didn’t have research grounded in these laboratories, it would be just a lot of talk and possibility. But when everyone can co-create – that’s when the magic happens and ideas become reality.
We consider the labs that we’ve put in place, such as the Interoperability & Integration Innovation Lab (I3L) – which is developing new ways to use and deliver health care and health information – one of our major contributions to the Georgia Tech innovation ecosystem. It’s when grand challenges become grounded in real technology, with real data and real people, that we start to make substantial progress.
Another thing about our living labs is anytime we create one, a key goal is for students – through coursework and by working with faculty – to be able to access and contribute to research.
Q: Why do companies work with IPaT?
A: The more experience I’ve had as a research administrator, the more I realize that companies want the answers to these questions: What makes people powerful? What makes people trust technology? What changes people’s behavior? Companies have confided that these questions are the ones that really challenge them and that they are looking for technical innovation as part of the larger solution to influencing human behavior. Over the years, we’ve learned to focus our partnerships with companies on these larger questions.
In addition, we make it easy for companies to engage Georgia Tech. They can sponsor theoretical research, or they can contract with us for specific technologies.
Companies also love to work with our students at the Convergence Innovation Competition; in fact, in many ways, when companies come to Tech for innovation, they want to get to the students as quickly as possible because they want that risk-taking spirit and creativity Tech students embody.
And as much as companies love working with our students, they love to work with each other at Tech. Many of our research programs are based on bringing multiple external partners to the same table so they can benefit from an exchange of ideas and collaboration – and enjoy the added advantage of having Tech as a neutral party. Our Nov. 5-6 People & Technology Forum is just one example of bringing external parties together: We invite all of our partners to come and be with us for two days in November. There are talks, panels, and research demos, but equally important are those conversations that take place in the hallways, as companies with specific business interests begin looking to the next opportunities that may present themselves through working with Georgia Tech and each other.
Q: What is your view on the best approach to transforming lives through research and technology?
A: Well, there is a great myth referred to as technological determinism, which suggests that you can just invent the technology and everything falls into place. My experience from two decades in research is that it’s more complicated than that. It’s actually what I’ve described as a dance in which new technology offers an opportunity, people respond – both in anticipated and surprising ways – then technology designers and inventors make adjustments accordingly, people do something different, and the dance continues. Even though we may be fascinated by the new technical inventions we create here at Tech, innovation comes from paying attention to that dance and from anticipating and responding to what makes peoplepowerful, because in the end, it’s not just about technologybeing powerful but about what happens in society as a result of that technology. It’s about empowering people to do what they really want and get what they really need through innovative advances in technology.
Q: What’s next for IPaT?
A: One of our main priorities in the health care sector is growing Tech’s partnership with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to improve the lives of children fighting pediatric asthma. Our role is to coordinate different asthma-related efforts throughout Georgia, using the combined resources of both institutions to provide technology solutions for clinicians and patients.
We’ve also recently established a partnership with Midtown Alliance, and the goal is to turn Midtown Atlanta into one of our living labs. Midtown Alliance and the business community, as a whole, are interested in leveraging mobile technology, smart city concepts, and advances in technology to improve Midtown’s live-work-play experience. We have two main objectives for this Midtown project: The first is creating a platform for innovation in Midtown where we support teams developing startup applications, provide access to new data sources, and invent new services for Midtown. The second is working directly with some of those teams to create prototypes of mobile applications and services that utilize Tech’s research and establish Midtown as a high-tech, powerful local community. It’s about helping Midtown communicate and sustain what makes it such a unique, influential, and strong community. In a sense, the Midtown Atlanta project is our biggest living lab yet. We’ve learned from the ways we’ve experimented on the Tech campus; now we’re taking some of that experience past campus boundaries.